The Owaisis: A lost opportunity for Maharashtra and for India

From a phenomenon to a near-cipher, the brothers leading the AIMIM have written themselves out of the Muslim conscience

Akbaruddin Owaisi (left), Asaduddin Owaisi (right) (photo: Wikipedia, Getty Images)
Akbaruddin Owaisi (left), Asaduddin Owaisi (right) (photo: Wikipedia, Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

In 2014, the Owaisi brothers were a phenomenon to be reckoned with in at least the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Asaduddin, the older brother, was suave and measured in his addresses to the public; Akbaruddin, of course, was the rabble-rouser. Muslim youth in Maharashtra saw them as the mirror images of Uddhav and Raj Thackeray and were quickly bowled over by their educated sophistication and unapologetic assertion of their Muslim identity, which both proudly wore on their sleeves.

It was no wonder then that the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen even won two seats in the Lok Sabha from Maharashtra and three in the state assembly in 2014. Muslim youth were taken by storm. Owaisi got ambitious enough to present candidates outside just the Muslim-majority constituencies and ran a clutch of Dalit and OBC names on his tickets, sure that his party was about to replace the Congress in their imagination. That year, as I chased Asaduddin all over Maharashtra to finally catch up with him in Aurangabad and saw how crowds reacted to him, I thought the nation would finally get the secular Muslim leader it was seeking in the wake of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and a couple of others who were now a distant memory to our elders and who the youth knew very little about. For the older brother was sophisticated, erudite, knowledgeable, spoke politely, took the most difficult questions without irritation, his answers always laced with a sense of humour that both charmed and confounded.

But by 2019, this phenomenon was over. What happened?

Most Maharashtrian Muslim youth enamoured of the Owaisi brothers say that the BJP has happened to them and got into their blood. They blame the younger brother Akbaruddin Owaisi for the start of this. Before 2014, Akbaruddin had in a fit of passion proclaimed that the police needed to be removed from the city or country for just 15 minutes for Muslims to ensure that Hindus would be massacred in masses and no one left alive. He had already been arrested for the same and the case was pending in the courts. Now living in Hyderabad, in the heart of the territory which saw the Razakar movement and the subsequent police action, Akbaruddin should have known better, particularly as his family is now leading the AIMIM and his grandfather too had been jailed for similar rabble-rousing.

For all that Akbaruddin Owaisi is accusing the Congress today, in rather derogatory terms, of being led by a non-native, he should realise that Sonia Gandhi’s commitment to India — as evinced by the MGNREGA, the direct benefit transfers, the women’s bill that only the AIMIM voted against — has been greater than his grandfather’s ever was. His was a pro-nizam party with the nizam only looking to integrate with Pakistan at Independence and forced by Sardar Patel to accept Indian sovereignty over his territory.

For that’s what the AIMIM, shorn of the words ‘All India’, used to be. Those all-important two words were later added by Abdul Wahed Owaisi, the grandfather of the two brothers who seized and took over the party after its then leader Kasim Rizvi, who fuelled the Razakar movement, was banished to Pakistan.

Set up as simply the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in 1927, the MIM was originally meant to be just a socio-religious organisation and had nothing to do with the politics of the time. However, after the death of its original founder, a lawyer from United Provinces — not even a native Hyderabadi — took over the Majlis, gave it a politico-religious character and took it to such levels of extremism that the Indian Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah seemed

very benign by comparison. As even before Independence, the Majlis became a highly violent force to reckon with, assassinating reasonable Muslim leaders in the Congress, burning down residences of British administrators, and so on, the moderates in the party gradually distanced themselves from the Majlis and sought other avenues to pursue their politics. So at Independence, the Majlis found itself in the hands of Rizvi, who is said to be solely responsible for the malevolent influence on the Nizam of Hyderabad, asking him to accede to Pakistan. Of course, given that (along with Junagadh’s nawab, who had similar aspirations) the Nizam’s territory did not share a border with Pakistan, this also finally meant seeking another Muslim dominion — this one within India.

It is Rizvi who set up the Muslim separatist group of the Razakars. But after the police action of Hyderabad, he was jailed and then banished to Pakistan — where, it is said, he was given little purchase by Jinnah or any other leader of the time and died in penury a few years later.

It was under these circumstances that the Majlis came into the hands of the Owaisis’ grandfather and though Abdul Wahed may not have sought a Muslim dominion in India or accession to Pakistan, he nevertheless swiftly found himself cooling his heels in prison for his hate speeches and disturbing the communal harmony in the territories of the nizam, which included Marathwada in Maharashtra, newly integrated into India.

Akbaruddin thus is a throwback to his grandfather and many Muslim youth are now convinced that his older brother has had to do a deal with the current regime to keep his younger sibling out of prison. The question that genuinely flummoxes them is how Akbaruddin stayed out of prison for so many years when young Muslim youth like Umar Khalid, Siddiqui Kappan and others spent years in incarceration for far less. Since 2014, Asaduddin’s deliberate attempts to polarise Muslims is being seen as part of this deal, as also the fact that he puts up more candidates in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra than in Telangana, simply to cut into the Congress vote banks there.

But now with the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) consolidated and elections fast approaching in their home state, the Owaisis are in need of some polarisation in their own interest. So, freed of the earlier cases in the courts — and unopposed by the current regime — Akbaruddin has made bold to rabble-rouse again.

Muslim youth had once seen the brothers as akin to Uddhav and Raj Thackeray, where the latter was no better than Akbaruddin Owaisi in arousing polarising sentiments and disturbing communal harmony. Today, Raj is a cipher in Maharashtra politics suited only to lending his baritone to the highest bidder. The moderate and inclusivist Uddhav, on the other hand, is still standing on his feet. In the unprecedented polarisation we are seeing between not just Hindus and Muslims but also Maharashtrians and other Hindu communities, he finds himself the biggest hope for his people after Sharad Pawar.

It is sad that Asaduddin Owaisi could not be the same to the Muslim youth of the country — for ironically, those in Maharashtra are firmly rooting for Uddhav Thackeray over him. He had the potential to be the next Maulana Azad. Now all that he will be is a suave English-speaking, witty, lawyer–politician like Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Jinnah, though, got to lead a country. The Owaisis might soon be restricted to just their pocket borough.

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Published: 02 Oct 2023, 12:49 PM